Multi-Domain Integration & the Future of Defence Procurement
Part I: Sunrise, Sunset and the Conceptual Bandwagon
The current emphasis on multi-domain integration in UK Defence, as with other Five Eyes and NATO allies, is frequently linked, or even synonymous, with the notion of innovation and disruptive technologies. Military concept notes and defence policy directives are keenly focused on the important role that technologies such as Machine Learning or AR/VR could or should play in the future ‘multi-domain’ operating environment - some going as far to suggest a total transformation of the very character of warfare and our existing ethical, operational and procedural frameworks.
These emerging technologies present both opportunities and threats to Defence and National Security. The opportunity, Defence leaders argue, lies in their ability to accelerate decision-making, targeting and effects across multiple domains, expand situational awareness and improve the safety of personnel by reducing the cognitive burden and ‘dully, dirty and dangerous’ tasks. Conversely, the threat emanates from our peer adversaries and competitors who have studied the ‘Western way of war’ in the 21st and late 20th century and have developed their own, parallel advanced technology programmes. These actors are now able to keep us locked in a constant state of competition via tools and tactics that blur the boundaries of war and peace and disrupt, deny or degrade our ability to operate freely, particularly in the traditional air, land and maritime environments.
During his speech on the Integrated Operating Concept last month, General Sir Nick Carter argued that, against a backdrop of grey zone threats and rampant commercial technological innovation, the UK will now focus on the ‘effective integration of maritime, land, air space and cyber’. To do this, he asserted, the UK ‘must chart a direction of travel from an industrial age of platforms to an information age of systems’. I’d take a stab in the dark and propose that the next part of CDS’ speech was possibly the most quoted in the press and would have prompted sheer horror/delight (depends on who you work for) for all those in industry:
Warfare… will be enabled at every level by a digital backbone into which all sensors, effectors and deciders will be plugged. This means that some industrial age capabilities will have to meet their sunset to create the space for capabilities needed for sunrise.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into the various political, economic and cultural implications of General Sir Nick’s statement, nor is there much point in offering up some guess work as to what exquisite (aka expensive and chunky) platforms will be ‘sunsetted’ over others as part of the upcoming Integrated Review. But, as a supplier for UK Defence and National Security, and, more so, as a member of the growing ‘Information Age’ cohort of companies developing Machine Learning applications, it’s worth taking some time to think through what Multi-Domain Integration will mean for us as a technology business.
More importantly, it’s worth considering what this means for the UK’s industrial enterprise as a whole. We must be able to actively, and honestly, guide and support those representatives in the MoD who must navigate the complexities of developing, delivering and fielding ‘emerging’ technologies as part of their multi-domain integration strategy, particularly as this will translate into radical changes to Defence procurement culture . The MoD’s recently published S&T Strategy stressed that ‘S&T opportunities’, should, in future, ‘inform concept, capability and warfighting development’. So, the responsibility of industry – traditional prime contractors or SMEs – becomes more then about providing the best, safest capability, but, rather, our innovations will shape the very operational complexion of the force they wish to supply. Serious stuff.
The multi-domain concept has been growing in popularity for some years now, and we may well be moving beyond buzzword status as major programmes and directives are issued (MDIRL – multi-domain in real life), even whilst sceptics still reference its enduring lack of definitional clarity. That said, my concern is that there is a tendency for governmental and commercial band-wagoning. This is where programmes, policies and new capabilities are disguised with multi-domain branding and we then start to lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve or the conceptual murkiness is confounded even further – like when you repeat the same word over and over again until it seems to lose all meaning.
(As an applied ML company, it’s our responsibility to guide and advise where we can. We don’t care about who wins the contract – as long as it’s the best capability!)
At university I became a bit of a Foucault fan girl (I was a huge nerd), and if there’s one thing I learnt from the French structuralist, it’s that words matter; they constitute meaning and shape our perception of our external world. As such, we should take the multi-domain integration concept and associated jargon seriously as it will (and in the US already very much is) frame decision-making as to the direction of the future force – both how it fights, and the capabilities with which it fights. At the same time, however, we must maintain a degree of critical oversight so that we don’t get lost down a rabbit hole and start investing in capabilities that are multi-domain or ‘innovative’ in style, rather than substance.
Thinking through what the Integrated Review could mean for us and how we can best inform sound procurement decision-making, it might be useful for us as an enterprise to reflect on the evolutionary history of the multi-domain concept. Moreover, we can look to our partners and allies, particularly the US, who have pushed forward with various organisational and procurement renovations to ensure new technologies are bridging the Valley of Death and finding their way into the hands of the end users.